John T. “Sonny” Edwards
John T. “Sonny” Edwards was born in Newport News, Virginia on August 1, 1934. After graduating from high school in 1952, he enlisted to join the Army National Guard Reserves at the age of nineteen, then continued work at his family’s peanut farm in Smithfield, Virginia. He was called for active-duty in 1956, and attended basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Following completion at Fort Jackson, he continued training as a Combat Engineer at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, then served in Korea near the DMZ from 1956 to 1958. Upon his return from service in Korea, he continued with the Army Reserves until receiving honorable discharge. Additionally, he has held a variety of jobs in farming, meat packing, insurance, and law enforcement, and enjoys being an active part of the Korean War Veterans Association. In his interview he describes his training, experiencing military service in South Korea, people of South Korea, and reflections on telling the story of the Korean War.
Combat Engineering and South Korea in 1957
John T. "Sonny" Edwards describes the duties of an Army Combat Engineer. He explains that although they are trained to handle explosives, the primary mission is bridge construction and demolition. He recalls his first impressions of South Korea upon his arrival in 1957, near Musan-ni, just below the DMZ. He describes observing the farming methods used by the people of South Korea, and having to carry out the duties of extending a run-way and building a wooden bridge across a river.
Life on the Base and in the Brotherhood
John T. "Sonny" Edwards gives a brief description of the base in South Korea where he was stationed in 1957, south of the DMZ. He recalls always being on alert to respond if a siren went off at the DMZ. He discusses his personal admiration for military service and the distinctive brotherhood that comes with being a member of the armed forces. He describes his sentiment toward serving the United States and his strong feelings toward the symbol of the American Flag.
Memories of South Korea, 1957
John T. "Sonny" Edwards describes his experience getting to South Korea in 1957. He recalls seeing meats hanging in the market, honey buckets, and the smell of kimchi. He describes his impression of Korean people and his appreciation for their warm sentiment toward Korean War Veterans.
We Need to tell the Story
John T. "Sonny" Edwards shares his opinion on why the story of the Korean War has been absent in history. He discusses how having a proper historical perspective has been affected by the attitude from the United States Government toward the Korean War. He shares his vision for getting more information out to the public and imparting it to the younger generations.
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J: My name is John T. “Sonny” Edwards. Uh, I live in Smithfield, Virginia. I was born August the first, 1934 in Newport News, Virginia. I graduated from Smithfield High School in 1952. Um, I was on a family farm with my father, um, when I got drafted. I was called to go to and us, but being……
J: … I was in reserve, uh I volunteered for the draft and uh, kept my stripes as a sergeant. When I was in high school, I never did hear a thing much about it my junior, senior year. And uh, but later I did start hearing about the war in Korea.
I: Yeah, in 1950 the Korean War broke out and what were you doing, you were in high school right?
I: Yeah, and what people talk about the Korean War?
J: To my knowledge, I don’t remember it being discussed. Uh, I think that summer when I graduated, I start hearing some, uh, I heard a friend of mine got drafted. Uh, I think he got drafted in ‘51. But I didn’t know about it in ‘51, I didn’t find out about it till ‘52. That uh, it was a war going on in Korea.
I: Mm. So, how about your family? You were adopted by…
J: Yes, I was adopted by, my mother and father was raised in um, Alleghany County, uh, they were living in Newport News. At the time my father was working for Newport News shipbuilding. Um, my mother had had three, uh adopted mother had had three miscarriages and she couldn’t have any children, and her doctor told her about a family of kids that needed a home.
J: My biological father had got killed in a car wreck when I was 6 weeks old and uh, my mother didn’t have the means to uh, feed us and raise us. And um, so my adopted parents went to see us where we were and, they really would have liked to adopt all three but it was, wasn’t financially feasible. So they adopted me being I was a baby an uh…..
J: the adoption was final I think after about 18 months, uh, they took me when I was 9 months old and uh, tried to nurse me back to health.
I: So, what were you doing until you were drafted in 1956?
J: My father and I were farming, uh, we had a successful farming operation going on, uh, we worked three or four farms and everything was going well and um….
J: I had joined the National Guard, I think when I was about 19 because someone said if you, in reserve probably they wouldn’t draft you if you were farming and going through this training. But I was too old when I joined so then I got a notice I think, October, uh, ‘56 to go for a physical, for draft. And uh, I passed the physical with flying colors and then I got a notice back to report for duty.
J: I went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for basic, then I went to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for Combat engineer training.
I: Mm hm.
J: Combat engineers, uh, they train how to find mines, how to place mines, how to handle dynamite, how to handle C3. Uh, combat engineers is really an infantry of reserve uh, things get tight….
J: … they call upon the engineers to assist them there, but the main mission is uh, bridge construction, uh, demolition.
I: So you have enough training from the basic training camp about those?
J: Yes, it was very thorough, I mean they were strict and uh, I felt it was, I was well trained, and um.
I: How long was the training?
J: 12 weeks.
I: 12 weeks?
I: Alright, so after the 12 weeks, what happened to you?
J: Uh, I received honor when I finished at my training in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Uh, I received an award as an Outstanding Trainee. My parents came out to see that. Uh, I had a ten day delay in route and I came back home for my parents for ten days. And um, during that ten days, I haul fertilizer back to the farm for my father to plant peanuts after I left. And uh, I called a plane in Norfolk and I flew to San Francisco.
J: Uh, I stayed at Oakland uh, processing, uh depot I think a couple of days. Then when I flew to San Francisco to go fly to Tachikawa, Japan. I stayed at Camp Drake about 2 weeks and then was flown to Korea. May the 10th, uh, ‘57..
J: Yeah. It was a real shock in Korea because the roads really hadn’t been paved. Uh, there were poor people I could see trying to make a living. Um, I was kind of interested in the farming aspect of it, how they planted the rice. They used oxen to turn the soil, uh, I watched them harvest rice. It was quite a cultural shock. Uh, they befriended people that I did come in contact with…
J: … and I was sent to um, the third engineer batallion of 24th infantry division, uh, just below the DMZ. It was a place called Musani.
J: It’s just…. Real close to Musani and um, I was signed, 24th division or third engineer batallion is where I was stationed. Uh, I was fortunate there that they put me charge of standing the runway at K16 and……
J: … um, then when I had finished up that, we uh, were building a wood bridge, and I can’t think of the name of the river but we built a wooden bridge across this river. Uh, my company, and um, while I was there they sent me to a non-commissions officer’s academy and I completed that while I was there. And uh, and then, in October late October,
J: I got a, I was wakened and told I had to go home. My father was ill, he was near death. My father loved me very much, we had a close bond and at the time I didn’t realize that when you’re younger, but as I got old I realized it was a very very close bond. My father was, didn’t have a lot of money but uh, he had a love for his family and a love of God.
J: And he never met a stranger, and uh, we were bonded like two brothers really more than like a father and son and uh, we bought equipment together, we rented farms together and we just did everything together. We hunted together and, I start shooting a gun when I was six years old.
I: Six years old?
J: He loved to squirrel hunt and I had a .22 and of course he wouldn’t let me load it until I got ready to shoot. But uh, we hunted squirrels, and uh…..
J: ….. I’ll never forget those days, I was trained to shoot early. They had a Quonset hut of course to stay in, uh we had a water tower up on the hill we could get some water and an outside latrine. It was rustic but at least you had somewhere to sleep or to the elements. We had a lot of rain while I was there Monsoon season was on and we had a lot of washouts in roads. Um, we have normal formation and had duties assigned.
J: What we, where to go and what to do that day. Um, we were always on alert most anytime a siren would go off it was something up on DMZ that didn’t look good, we were alerted and we prepared, ready to move out. And um, fortunately, nothing happened down in that area. It was sad for me to leave my unit to come home.
J: It was, I hate to leave my unit. It was sad for me to go and see my father laying on the bed dying. Um, that was really sad. Um, but, and I really lost interest in farming after he died. Uh, I’ve told my wife several times, I think I’d been better off reporting back to active duty.
J: Because I loved the military uh…..
J: … I liked the military, and um, even though me being drafted uh, had an effect of my father’s life, uh, I was honored to serve my country.
J: I was trained to obey uh, discipline, my parents. Your parents said don’t do something you didn’t do it, um, my mother was more of a disciplinarian than my father, she was a school teacher.
J: And um, unfortunately, in my younger years I was a little trifling, I really didn’t put the time into studying like I should and it really upset her. It didn’t bother my father too much but it did her. Um, I like the uniform, I like uniforms, uh, close all a drill um,
I: The loyalties.
J: Yeah, loyalty, country, uh, means a lot and I see somebody burn our flag I’ll get, my chain is jerked…
J: … because so many people died to save that flag and uh, and that’s why I enjoy the Korean War Veteran’s association, uh, my wife can’t understand when I go like this. I feel so good because I’m with a band of brothers. It is hard to explain to someone whose never been in the military. Um, it got, about three years ago I got very depressed and um..…
J: That VA sent me to a psychologist. Well they come to find out there’s some things I had forgotten that happened 50 years ago. Number one, when we got on the plane at Tachikawa, I was seat 124, troops were on the top and uh, cripples was on the bottom deck. Well we flew to Tachikawa midnight one night, …
J: We lost an engine and uh, then they thought we’re gonna continue and then we lost another engine. So we had to turn around and go back to Tachikawa. We’re going back and one of the dudes on the plane had been there before, he says, last month they had one crash in the Yalu River. Well that was really encouraging, so we went back and we spent the night at Camp Drake, and we got up the next, midnight the next night and uh…
J: We lost another engine on the way that time. But, I didn’t realize that had bothered me deep in my mind, and the death of my father. And uh, I couldn’t explain it, I was having uh, I was having nightmares and everything else. I was in the process then, being I was the only child, and no one to run this family farm. My mother contacted the state senator, possibility of a hardship discharge, to not go back to Korea.
J: And in the meantime, uh, I reported to Fort Eustis twice a week for about 30-something days. After my 30 days was up, uh, to find my records. They couldn’t find my records, it was in. So finally, I went to Fort Meade, Maryland, um, the last of January to be discharged. Well the other thing that happened, I forgot this…..
J: … three weeks after my father died, I went to my grandfather’s house to find him, and I found him dead in the pasture. Three weeks after my father died.
J: And uh, I begin to wonder, I said “what is gon’ happen next?” and my grandfather was 70-something years old and um, my father was his only son and my grandfather took it hard too.
J: The doctors think he had a cerebral hemorrhage. But it was real cold that day, we were trying to pick peanuts and the ground was frozen, and I sent a man to the house to get me a pea punch so I could dig in the ground. And he said, go back and tell Sonny to come on in the house, it’s too cold to work out there, and they said, Ms. Davis said, he’s trying to get the crop in and after that, that was the last time he was seen alive. He dropped dead in the yard.
J: I think one of the probably most dangerous moment was trying to get there.
J: Keeping that plane from crashing. And it was loaded to the gills, it was loaded with tanks, and uh, bulldozers on the lower deck and the troops on the top deck. And um, I was glad to touch the ground, I’ll be honest with you.
J: Course I’m an old country boy, the first time I’d been on a plane was when I flew to California. But uh, that was, it was touchy.
J: But uh, the Korean people, uh, I’d go through the village and I see they had fish hanging up, they had chickens hanging up, and I often wondered how in the world could they eat it, it was bound to go bad if it wasn’t refrigerated. And uh, but they survived it and uh, I’ll never forget the honey buckets, every morning go out and put that ‘round the cabbage and stuff uh, um, kimchee. I remember that smell.
J: We had a barber come on post to cut our hair sometime. And it got so bad you could hardly sit in the chair to get your haircut, from the kimchee. But I understand that’s a delicacy of the Korean people. I liked the sweet and sour pork they had. When I go to eat I don’t really know what I’m eating but a lot of it is very good. Uh very good.
J: And um, I think we went to the ambassador’s residence, I was invited last June to go there and I was very honored to be there, uh, General Lee. They invited a group of us there for a luncheon. And um, that was very nice. I like to say this about the Korean people. The Korean people are the most appreciative of any nation I know of for their freedom.
J: Every time you get around they say thank you for what you did, and a thank you goes a long long way. You don’t see these other nations that we went to rescue from dictatorship or communism say thank you. The older I get in my life, I’m glad I was a part of it. I don’t have children, uh if I did, uh grandchildren, I want them to be a part of this legacy, to know about it.
J: Because, uh, even today people do not know anything about the Korean War. I’m talking about the older people, particularly younger people that’s not taught in our schools. And I do some involvement with the Tele America program, I got to do a program at the library the Saturday before Veteran’s Day. I’m doing that, and I got a program to give to an ROTC unit, uh a couple months.
J: But, a lot of American people don’t know a thing about it. And I don’t think, during the war I was the only person not really aware of what was going on, I think it was nationwide. I really do, a lot of areas. And I [inaudible] these. Somebody put an article in there, went to basic training and said I’m going to Korea! Said where is that? I never hear about it. So think that was the attitude of the nation, and it had a lot to do with our leadership.
J: They call it a police department, a police…
J: Action. It was not what they call a war. And they didn’t have the coverage of the sacrifices being made over there, getting killed. We didn’t have TV coverage on the front line. Uh, you get a little trickle back of what the government wants you to hear. And you, it was terrible, as I said yesterday….
J: … when I go to a group and you got Silver Star, Gold Star, Bronze Star people that fought Pochan Hill, Busan invasion, Choseon reservoir. They survived that, I am honored to be in their presence, because they made the ultimate sacrifice. And, there again our government put us in that position, they sent us over there…
J: …..not properly trained, didn’t have the proper equipment, didn’t have the proper clothing. Everybody after World War 2, everybody was thinking about World War 2, and uh, the guys that served in Korea come back, got married, got a job. Well it wasn’t long after that, Korea, Vietnam started. So we were caught between two well publicized wars and Korea was never really talked about, and it’s unfortunate.
J: What you’re doing right there is what’s needed to be done about it. Our group, the Korean War Veteran’s Association needs to be more involved in our schools and civic organizations to tell about this, to show videos, uh, to let the American people know. Every time I go make a presentation, “I had no idea that was going on like that, I didn’t know that many people got killed.”
J: But, uh, it just wasn’t talked about, unfortunately that’s the problem, and thank God the Korean people are involved with, we want to tell about the sacrifices made in our country. I appreciate that, and I think all the guys that served in Korea appreciate it. If we don’t recruit, we’re gonna be a dying organization. Because of those that served in Korea ‘50 to ‘53 are in their eighties and uh……
J: … unfortunately life expectancy takes its toll. Those that served in Korea, I’m 78 years old, went there in ‘56, but we got some that served in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s and ‘90’s. We need to get the message that didn’t accept them. Uh, they’ll probably, uh, I sent an e-mail to a friend of mine in the 24th infantry division to join the Korean War Veteran’s Association.
J: And uh, he said well, I can’t give you a roster for the 24th, the press would have to do that, and he says buy the way, don’t ask me to join because when they start taking in those that served in Korea after ‘53, I didn’t want to be a member. That’s the mindset, that’s bad.
J: That’s bad. President Ferris, when he ran for office, he says recruiting was his top priority. Well, I thought about it one time today, don’t many politicians live up to the promise, and he’s doing that.
J: Recruiting is his top priority.
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